Washington — Ronald Reagan's delay in imposing tight control over his campaign may be endangering the lead time he gained in wrapping up the Republican nomination early against George Bush.
What Mr. Reagan needs now, observers here say, is what Mr. Carter has -- a Hamilton Jordan, a field marshal given full command of his troops and overall strategy.
Or, he could go back to using former chief strategist John Sears, as he had before.
Since the firing of Mr. Sears Feb. 26 -- the day of the first Reagan primary victory (in New hampshire) -- the former California governor's effort has been managed by a troika of loyalists: longtime aide Edwin Meese, pollster Richard Wirthlin, and William Casey, who is both a New York lawyer and Washington hand. The loyalists, after ousting Mr. Sears, launched an ambitious plan to develop broad themes in the campaign, umder teams of advisers, to be ready for the post-convention contest and to take over the White House if they win.
But a Republican field general still has not been hired. And Mr. Reagan, despite his hands-down win in the primary phase of the campaign, has convention trouble of his own. This is visible in the effort to unseat GOP national chairman Bill Brock.
In contrast, President Carter has quickly gone public with his general election lineup. Mr. jordan, out of sight with the President during the "Rose Garden" phase of the campaign, had already held joint White house chief of staff and campaign command roles for the primaries. His emergences, after a series of leaks to the press about his earlier general-ship role, indicates an all-out Carter effort to use full White House resources in the Campaign. And Mr. Carter , despite an anticipated Kennedy convention challenge, still controls the Democratic Party machinery under national chairman John White.
The failure to impose discipline on the troops alarms some Republican pros, who observe the Reagan congressional chairman, Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, acting independently of campaign chief Casey.
At stake, these party pros say, is a unified Republican effort for the fall.
"Bill Casey has lost control," says one GOP insider. "Laxalt has been undercutting Casey. He and [communications aide Lyn] Nofziger are after Brock.
"Reagan needs someone who can say, 'Stop all this in-fighting; I'm in charge'. They will never get a top political director to leave a $200,000 job to run the campaign unless they put him in charge. It's the Sears business all over again. [Carter campaign chairman Robert] Strauss must be laughing at all this."
The Reagan staff is aware of the measure of consistency and control of resources that a Hamilton Jordan gives to the prospective Democratic nominee.
"We've been given a gift of time," says Reagan pollster Wirthlin of the early bow-out of challenger Bush. "His incumbency gives Carter considerable resources , the ability to command the media. We have to create a campaign infrastructure from scratch."
"John Sears would be of immense use to Reagan now," says William Schneider, political analyst and senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, a conservative West Coast "think tank."
"Sears is not an ideologue type, and in the primaries one has to be an orthodox Republican," Mr. Schneider says. "He was fired because he favored a centrist strategy. He was trying to keep Reagan above the fray -- a serious mistake that affronted Iowans in the January caucus.
"Reagan needs him back now. In running against Carter, Reagan has to appear moderate and safe. He needs a strategist to guide him through a general election where an ideological campaign doesn't pay off. I wouldn't be at all surprised for Sears to make his way back."
However, Mr. Sears likely would not hold the deep personal trust of Mr. Reagan that Hamilton Jordan enjoys with President Carter, Mr. Schneider thinks.
"Reagan admires and respects Sears," Mr. Schneider says. "But he wouldn't now have the complete confidence of the candidate."
The Reagan loyalists, who take a team approach to running things, respond that it was they who recommended Mr. Sears in the first place and that they could invite in others in the future.
"Reagan has an ability to look beyond the loyalists," Mr. Wirthlin says. "It was the loyalists that put John Sears into power . . . and that brought Bill Casey in to run the campaign. It's the loyalists who are going out to hire other people to run the campaign. We need a nuts-and-bolts organization guy who can handle statewide campaigns -- an implementer, coordinator."
Mr. Wirthlin's description of "an implementer, coordinator" suggests the troika will still be running things through the convention and general election campaign.
And, given the modern pattern of candidates taking into the White House the same aides who helped them win it, Mr. Reagan may be providing a glimpse of his own White House inner circle -- with Mr. Meese at the hub and Mr. Wirthlin close by as trusted adviser in the style of Carter pollster Patrick Caddell.
During the primaries, Mr. Wirthlin is thought to have matched Mr. Caddell's performance in reading the mood of the electorate. "We were always thism close," Mr. Wirthlin says, showing less than an inch gap between thumb and forefinger.
Mr. Caddell says the same of his own performance. So the two campaigns could be closely matched in voter surveillance, or polling operations.
In the Carter lineup, Texas lawyer, Strauss remains titular head. He describes his role as "senior spokesman" and acknowledges that Mr. Jordan, who slipped from public sight until cocaine possession charges against him were recently dropped, had been running the operation from the start. Mr. Jordan has indicated he would prefer to stay away from newsmen, leaving the talking to Mr. Strauss.